How reviewers sometimes tell as much about themselves as about the book

I generally do not think authors should comment publicly on book reviews, but this spring I came across two reviews of a book that I coauthored, which had somewhat divergent viewpoints and were written by reviewers who were put out by our treatment of religion. Both reviewers, to some extent, project their own views onto us, but for very different reasons, and I thought that this interesting divergence called out for a brief response.

The book in question is Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by me and Paul Strode. A review in Science Education by Adam Shapiro, now a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, begins with this enigmatic niggling:

From its very title, Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) embodies a confusion. If by failing, the authors mean that creationism is a theory with no intellectual merit, then why is evolution not “true” or even “successful”? Suggesting that the important thing about evolution is that it “works” is tantamount to accepting a distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” that inadvertently echoes the arguments of intelligent design advocates. On the other hand, the rhetoric may be intended to evoke controversies in schools, where there can be no worse condemnation than the word “fail.” But in this formulation, especially for students, failing and working are hardly mutually exclusive options. The contrast is a weak one, and hence the book’s purpose is obscured.

Dr. Shapiro must be the only person on earth who thinks that the title of that book is murky. After such an inauspicious beginning, his review had nowhere to go but up, and I had the impression that he mostly liked the book but was simply put off by the title. Indeed, he liked best the parts of the book (written primarily by my colleague, Paul Strode) that dealt directly with evolution, and he writes,

But of special value is the discussion of recent developments in evolutionary theory, explained in nontechnical language, which does show how evolution works and continues to work.

I assume I will not be the only reader who is at least mildly amused by Dr. Shapiro’s use of the locution, “evolution works.”

Dr. Shapiro also appreciated our debunking of intelligent-design creationism, but he takes us to task for not recognizing that Darwin worked by analogy as much as did Michael Behe. Here he is flatly incorrect: We do not criticize Behe for using analogy, but for using an inapt analogy. It is a good and interesting point that Darwin reasons by analogy, but Darwin draws an analogy between artificial and natural selection – that is, between two means of selecting organisms – whereas Behe draws an analogy between organisms and manufactured objects. Behe’s analogy may not obviously be inapt, but we show in the book why it is inapt.

What concern me most about Dr. Shapiro’s review, however, are his incorrect characterization of our position on religion and his questioning our qualification to write on religion (which is a topic for which I was primarily responsible). In his concluding paragraph, he writes,

This book contains some excellent explanations of evolutionary science and valid refutations of creationism and intelligent design hypotheses. The prose is clear and accessible, and it is well researched, drawing from many cutting-edge scientific sources. Yet one of the “Thought Questions” at the end of the introduction poses [sic] comes off as ironic: “Citing an authority to support a contention is called an appeal to authority. When is it appropriate to accept the word of an authority and when not? Who can fairly be called an authority? Can you give examples of people who may be authorities in one subject but not in another?” (p. 13). While the authors’ biographies justify their claims to authority in science, their pronouncements on religion are much less authoritative.

Dr. Shapiro holds a very recent PhD in the history and philosophy of science; if I wanted to be catty, I might ask just how authoritative his review of a book on science might be. More pertinently, however, had Dr. Shapiro done his homework, he would have found that I am not completely ignorant of religion and have written a book and occasional articles on science and religion, presented a paper to the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, and coauthored an encyclopedia article on unbelief among scientists (see also an update here).

Some of Dr. Shapiro’s criticisms seem to me to be correct – maybe in fact we should have made more clear whom we mean by biblical literalists, for example. But I disagree that we have distorted anyone’s position, and the following is simply a misreading of what we actually wrote:

The authors insist that they believe that science and religion can be reconciled. Certain religious beliefs, such as in a young earth, are obviously wrong and in conflict with science, but they believe ultimately that religion and science need not be in conflict. The reconciliation, however, seems to come wholly at the expense of religion. As long as “religion” is reduced to an inward personal sense of spirituality that makes no claims about the material world, its workings, or how knowledge of the world is to be found, then religion and science can peacefully coexist. Regardless of the validity of these arguments, one must wonder how well this view can appeal to a presumably religious audience for whom religion means nothing like what the authors describe.

I do not know whether Dr. Shapiro is projecting his own views onto us, but, in contrast to what he says, we cite with approval the spiritual journey of the evangelical Christians Stephen Godfrey and Christopher Smith, the authors of Paradigms on Pilgrimage, who modified their literalist views as they learned more about science and higher criticism, in that order, but who remain evangelical Christians. Despite what Dr. Shapiro says, we never claim that religion must be “reduced to an inward personal sense” of anything, and (also contrary to what Dr. Shapiro charges) we do not give religious advice, except perhaps when we state that a religious belief that contradicts known facts is wrong.

Finally, and with respect, I recommend that Dr. Shapiro reread the box on page 57; surely he will realize that our comment, “According to the logic of the biblical literalist, pi must have been equal to 3 in the days of Solomon,” was meant satirically.

Some will be surprised that a more fair and indeed more favorable review appeared in Christian Scholar’s Review. The author, Michael Buratovich, is a biochemistry professor at Spring Arbor University, a Christian university affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. Professor Buratovich is also a member of the National Center for Science Education, its journal’s associate editor for cell and molecular biology, and evidently an evangelical Christian. Professor Buratovich also reviews Jerry Coyne’s splendid book Why Evolution Is True and advises that

both books are fine representations of a solid mainstream defense of evolutionary theory against Creationism and ID theory. While not all of their defenses are equally convincing, both books are highly readable and user-friendly. Those who desire more details should read the Coyne book, but those who want more of a response to ID theory should read Young and Strode. If you are really interested in the mainstream scientific response to challenges to Neo-Darwinism, read both books.

Professor Buratovich too is troubled by our discussion of religion and projects onto us a view which we do not promulgate. He apparently believes in an objective moral code; he takes us to task for our attempt to show how morality may be an evolved trait and argues that neither kin selection nor computer programs and theoretical constructions like Tit for Tat or the Prisoner’s Dilemma can

explain the existence of transcendent moral standards. If such standards do not exist, then is Mother Teresa really a better person than Adolph Hitler? Is rape or torturing babies for fun always wrong? Is moral progress possible? If objective moral standards do not exist, then the answer to all these questions must be no, and we are left with absurdities. The abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States under such moral relativism is not moral progress but only moral change. If we are not willing to accept such absurdities, then we must explain the existence of objective moral standards.

He is, of course, correct that we have not explained the existence of morality. And, as far as I know, there is yet no answer to his questions. But, before we can “explain the existence of objective moral standards,” we need to establish their existence in the first place, and (also as far as I know) neither Professor Buratovich nor anyone else has succeeded in doing so. Professor Buratovich’s appeal to objective moral standards thus amounts to a God-of-the-gaps argument; in a way, our section on the evolution of morality is an attempt to show that moral standards may well not have been imposed from without, but that morality may have instead a biological origin. That there are still gaps to be filled in does not justify a God-of-the-gaps argument, however, and we present an argument to suggest that morality cannot have been decreed by God.

I was more concerned by Professor Buratovich’s claims that our book is aimed at non-Christians and especially that we make “digs” at Christianity. In fact, as we note, the book is aimed at anyone with $21.95 to spare or, more seriously, at anyone who wants to know more about the successes of evolution and the failure of creationism. Since many Christians may need to understand precisely those matters, I want especially to discuss Professor Buratovich’s unfounded charge that

Young and Strode, however, have written a book for non-Christians and they simply cannot help making digs at Christianity. For example, they characterize biblical higher criticism as a “careful, dispassionate effort to deduce the origin, age[,] or veracity of various sections of the Bible” (21), but higher critics of the Bible are often anything but objective, and anyone who has ever listened to Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman can testify to this. Some of their [Young and Strode’s] digs are also undocumented and gratuitous. For example, they write: “[T]he Hebrew Bible consists of several discrete, interwoven threads that tell inconsistent stories” (22), but never cite a single example.

Pagels and Ehrman can defend themselves. It might have been a good idea for us to have cited some examples, but it frankly never occurred to me, because I thought that the documentary hypothesis was generally considered established fact outside fundamentalist circles. Two examples will suffice: Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells a completely different creation story from Genesis 2:4-2:25, and no amount of finagling can reconcile them. Likewise, in Genesis 6:19 and thereafter, Elohim (God) tells Noah to take two of each kind into the Ark; then Adonai (Lord) says seven pairs of each “clean” animal; then we learn that Noah took two of each kind whether clean or not, as Elohim commanded him. It almost reads as if Adonai and Elohim are having an argument, with poor Noah caught in the middle, but in fact it is simply two traditional tales woven together by an unknown editor (Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? See also “Questioning authority” here).

I first thought that Professor Buratovich, in calling us anti-Christian, was conflating his evangelical Christianity with all of Christianity. But in a short, private correspondence with me, he argued that

I do not think that the term “Christian” has maximum elasticity. To be a Christian means that you believe certain things that were promulgated by apostolic preaching. If you do not believe those things then you cannot be called a Christian. Otherwise the term Christian or follower of Christ has no meaning.

In other words, if I understand him in context, his interpretation of Christianity is the Only Right One, and others who purport to be Christians are not true Christians. I am sorry, but I could not help but think of the no true Scotsman fallacy when I read that paragraph.

At any rate, the documentary hypothesis (or higher criticism) is no more anti-Christian than it is anti-Semitic, yet I once had a rabbi who used to say, “Higher criticism is higher anti-Semitism.” He was wrong and parochial, just as Professor Buratovich is wrong and parochial. Indeed, a former Anglican bishop and prolific writer, John Shelby Spong, in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism states flatly that the documentary hypothesis is almost incontrovertible and considers it tragic that so few worshipers even know about it. I do not mean to sound sarcastic, but it is frankly more tragic when someone knows about the documentary hypothesis and uses it gratuitously against authors with whom he is generally friendly, but, in his words, he apparently “cannot help making digs at” them.

Acknowledgments. Glenn Branch, Michael Buratovich, Adam Shapiro, and Paul Strode have read and commented on this article. Thanks also to the editors of Christian Scholar’s Review for permission to post the Buratovich review; the editors of Science Education were not as agreeable.